Digital Preservation and the Rehearsing of the Form/Content Divide

Posted by on Mar 7, 2014 in Digital Projects, library | No Comments

As I was thinking about this week’s blogging question I cam across the International Research on Permanent Authentic Records in Electronic Systems (InterPARES) project. This projects’ mandate is to developing  knowledge around how to digitally preserver records for the long-term, and provide input into standards, policies and strategies for digital preservation.

I was looking at the InterPARES Creator Guidelines and was intrigued to see that this project insists on the fixity of both form and content when preserving digital records. Moreover, the project suggest that  “…the idea of stable content is fairly simple, the concept of fixed form is more complex.” The reason this caught my eye is that it seems to rehearse the kind of form/content divide that we have worked hard in our class to unpack and dispel. Although these guidelines seem to place an importance on the specific instantiation of each digital text–the guidelines argue that good digital preservation relies on  “…the message conveyed by a digital record (or other digital object) [being] rendered with the same documentary presentation it had on the screen when it was made or received and first saved”–emphasis is placed primarily on maintaining the integrity of the digital content. The various materialities of the digital form: the hardware, software, file formats, etc., are imagined as inert platforms that tend towards obsolescence, rather than aspects that should be considered integral to the digital text as a whole. Interestingly, in the face of such obsolescence, the guideline suggest taking a ‘proactive’ approach to preservation which translates to converting a digital texts to standardized physical forms, like microfilm. Such a suggestion belies the assumption that a change in form and materiality would have no bearing on the content of the text.

I can’t help but wonder if this emphasis on fixity, and on the separation of form and content, results from a idiosyncratic understanding of what a book is, combined with a desire to make digital texts more book-like. It seems as if the authors of these guidelines are trying to find ways to make digital texts fit with the collection and preservation processes and techniques that have been used for physical books across centuries. These guidelines disavow the notion that digital texts are different from physical books by denying those aspects that are unique to digital forms. Indeed, the guidelines begin by claiming that “ A system that contains fluid, ever-changing information or data does not really contain records until someone decides to make them and save them with fixed form and stable content.” Instead of devising ways to maintain the potential fluidity of a digital text, the InterPARES project suggest capturing the content of a digital work, and then fixing it within a set of defined formats and classificatory schema. Such a frame not only limits the potential trajectories of a digital text within and across time, but also reimagines the codex as an object that  statically bears content across its pages.  I recognize that long-term preservation of digital texts is no easy task, and that some kind of fixity is required for storage and retrieval of texts, however, I think we do digital texts a disservice if we we imagine them as simply virtual version of physical books.


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